At Trial, Arab Bank’s Lawyer Spars With Witness

Guilty as Hell and will go scott free.

New York Times – by Stephanie Clifford

For three days, the former chief of the Israeli military’s Palestinian Affairs Department delivered important, if a bit dry, testimony in the terrorism financing trial of Arab Bank in Federal District Court in Brooklyn.

The witness, Arieh Spitzen, had highlighted bank records showing Arab Bank routing payments to people who, he said, were widely known to be terrorists or members of Hamas.  

But during cross-examination on Thursday, the typically dull dissection of bank records became lively. Mr. Spitzen was tenacious, while Shand S. Stephens, a lawyer for Arab Bank, was aggressive — making them well-matched sparring partners.

Arguing over Arab Bank transfers to Salah Shehada, whom Mr. Spitzen had identified as a Hamas co-founder, Mr. Stephens questioned Mr. Spitzen about his earlier statement that the man was a “very famous” terrorist.

“He was so famous a terrorist that the United States of America never designated him on the O.F.A.C. list, did it?” Mr. Stephens asked, referring to a list maintained by the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control, which the bank maintains it checked all transactions against.

“The fact that he was not on the list does not mean that he was not famous,” Mr. Spitzen replied, speaking through a translator.

Who, Mr. Stephens asked, gets to decide if someone is a terrorist? Shouldn’t a government do that?

“I’m not an expert in bank compliance,” Mr. Spitzen said, but “I think a bank should get to know its clients.”

The bank, which has headquarters in Jordan,is accused of processing payments and handling accounts for terrorists. It argues that it used proper compliance standards and that any transactions that slipped through were a mistake.

About 300 plaintiffs — either those injured or estates and families of those killed in Hamas attacks during the second intifada — brought the suit. It isthe first time a civil terrorism financing case against a bank has gone to trial in the United States under the Anti-Terrorism Act and could set important precedents.

Mr. Stephens went through the transfer records that Mr. Spitzen said were associated with terrorists, pointing out that in many of the cases, the people were not listed by the American government as terrorists while the transactions in question had taken place, or were just family members of terrorists.

At a few points, the discussion of banking veered into Israel’s policy toward Palestinians.

Mr. Stephens asked what one man Mr. Spitzen had identified as a terrorist had done. Mr. Spitzen had earlier prepared a slide that said the man, Baha al-Din al-Madhun, had received $19,500 in two Arab Bank transfers around 2000 and 2001. Mr. Spitzen said he had aided Hamas prisoners.

“Those who assist terror are terrorists,” Mr. Spitzen testified.

Mr. Stephens asked if it was correct that during the second intifada, Israel jailed 28,000 to 30,000 Palestinians. Mr. Spitzen said that he was not sure, but that thousands had been imprisoned.

“For everything from throwing stones to violating curfew to committing murder, weren’t they?” Mr. Stephens asked.

“That’s true.”

“You think someone who throws a stone isn’t entitled to support while in prison?” Mr. Stephens asked.

The case is also noteworthy because Arab Bank did not turn over a huge number of bank records; it said that would have violated financial privacy laws in some of the countries.

To “restore the evidentiary balance,” a judge who had handled the case in 2010 ruled that the bank could not explain to the jury why it did not produce the requested records.

The bank’s refusal to turn over such records stymied investigative efforts by Mr. Spitzen, who, at several points on the stand referred to his frustration.

But Mr. Stephens was able to get across the point that Arab Bank had produced many documents. He opened his cross-examination by noting that the 225,000 documents the bank had turned over would reach the height of a seven-story building. After Mr. Stephens asked if those calculations were correct, Mr. Spitzen deferred to Mr. Stephens, saying he trusted him.

“Well, you’re probably one of the few people in America that trusts lawyers,” Mr. Stephens said, to laughter from spectators.

Mr. Spitzen got his own laughs, when he pointed out that he had not printed all of these records and had examined them on a computer. “I’m not using that quantity of paper,” he said. “It’s not good for the environment.”

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